Last week, Colombia signed a $315 million USD agreement with the United Nations to combat coca production in the nation. Amid a renewed urgency created by the country’s peace process goals and a spike in coca cultivation last year, this represents the largest ever such deal between the two sides.
With the agreement, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has pledged to “monitor the country’s policy to reduce illicit crops and to strengthen rural development as a crucial part of the country’s ongoing peace-building efforts.”
The massive financial commitment to Colombia’s efforts to promote crop substitution comes at a time when the White House and various Congress members in the United States, long the biggest source of foreign funding for Colombia, have pressured Bogotá officials to cut down on coca production.
But unlike the UNODC’s push for development-led efforts and crop substitution, many U.S. policymakers favor a ramp up in forcible eradication and other aggressive tactics, including a return to the controversial aerial fumigation program that was halted in 2014 by the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, who cited health concerns of dropping herbicide from planes.
According to the U.S. estimates, the cultivation of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine, rose by 18% last year compared to 2015 to reach 188,000 hectares — the largest area in more than two decades. UN figures for 2016 cite 146,000 hectares, a lower but still alarmingly high number for modern Colombia.
“UNODC has been a strong and committed supporter of Colombia’s activities to encourage local communities to voluntarily give up coca cultivation,” said UNODC in a statement. “The new project enhances this support and is based on UNODC’s decades-old experience of working with farming communities across the world.”
The crop substitution effort within Colombia’s peace process entails a new program that offers amnesty to small-scale coca farmers who join the program and agree to give up the illicit production in favor of planting coffee, cacao, or other crops. Voluntary crop substitution falls under what UNODC calls “alternative development,” which the agency already supports in Colombia and has employed for more than three decades across the globe as a “fundamental pillar of international drug control strategy,” according to the office.
Even before the new agreement, nearly two-thirds of UNODC’s work in the country has been related to alternative development, according to the agency. It also supports this strategy in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Peru, Myanmar, and Laos.
Rafael Pardo Rueda, Colombia’s high commissioner on post-conflict, human rights, and security, praised the UN for its support. “This project is the largest in Colombian history with UNODC,” said Pardo Rueda. “The expertise and neutrality of the United Nations are guarantees for implementing the monitoring and evaluation of our illicit crop reduction policy.”
The agreement was signed on November 3 in Vienna, Austria, by Mariana Escobar Arango, head of Colombia’s Territorial Renewal Agency, and UNODC head Yury Fedotov. “This agreement highlights the importance of addressing the challenges of drugs and crime to promote peace and security, human rights, and development,” said Fedotov.
In July, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations also signed a relatively modest agreement, to supply $8.8 million USD in support, with the Territorial Renewal Agency to support development related to the peace process.